The Portland Trail Blazers made their first splash after the NBA Draft and signed Keith Appling, former Michigan State point guard and undrafted free agent, to play for the Trail Blazers summer league team July 11-21 in Las Vegas.
If this was any other draft, Appling would have been, at worst, a second round pick. Because this draft was so loaded, Appling fell out of the draft completely, which totally works out for Portland. They have the chance to capitalize on the draft, even though they had to sit out. Depending on how it goes in Las Vegas, Appling will have a reasonable chance to make the team next season. Hopefully, the Blazers got a steal.
The former Michigan State Spartan is going to get a real shot to make the team, too. Appling could, and probably should, be on the Trail Blazers’ roster at the start of next season, especially if Portland doesn’t bring back Mo Williams. Right now, backup point guard is a wide-open position for the Trail Blazers. If the season were to start tomorrow, C.J. McCollum would most likely get the nod, but Coach Terry Stotts would be making a gamble by playing him as the backup with no replacement. If Williams and Earl Watson both leave this offseason, which is expected, Appling would be the third point guard on the roster.
Adding Appling to the summer league roster is an experiment to see if he can make the cut. If Appling can make it, the Blazers have a little extra money to go after a backup big or wing this offseason. If he can’t make the team or be expected to contribute down the road, the Blazers need to bring in extra help at backup point guard. Doing so would shrink the Blazers’ options in free agency and make it more difficult for Portland make the necessary acquisitions to improve the roster.
So, who is Keith Appling, and what can he bring to the Blazers, you ask?
Appling played four years at Michigan State under Coach Tom Izzo and had a very successful college career but never really made a big breakthrough because of injuries. His injuries are probably the major reason he wasn’t taken in the draft, but Appling was always going to be a fringe player because he’s not clear-cut top-60 talent. If he did get picked, it would have been because he was the perfect fit for a team.
Appling’s more of a traditional point guard than anyone on the Blazers’ roster in that he’s not an extra dynamic athlete or a score-first player. Appling can score, which he did more of as a junior when he was healthy, but he also can pass, like he did during his senior season when he struggled with a nagging wrist injury. Obviously, his numbers aren’t going to blow people away, but the fact that he played consistently for four years on one of the the most loaded teams in college basketball should count for something. Last season, Appling played with at least three or four future NBA players, including two first-rounders, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne. As the point guard, Appling was called on to get the ball to those guys, rather than try to find his own shot. He could have scored more or collected more assists, but that wasn’t how Izzo wanted Appling to play, which led to clashes at times.
Appling’s attitude has been somewhat of a problem in his career. On multiple occasions, he got into verbal scuffles with teammates and Coach Izzo. Some teams may have viewed that as a negative, but personally, I like a point guard who has an edge to him. Former Sonics’ great Gary Payton didn’t get anywhere by being timid and coy, so it can be beneficial to have a point guard who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Appling seems like a good fit for Portland because the Blazers don’t really have anyone like him right now. Both, Damian Lillard and McCollum are shooters who can play point guard. I don’t mean that as a negative, either. They’re just better shooters than they are at anything else, and luckily, they can shoot the ball really well. Appling is more of an unfinished product offensively and doesn’t have the best shooting stroke. He’s a system player who can run the pick-and-roll and make the right plays within the offense. Appling isn’t going to ISO or carve up a team with his penetration. He’s basically a game manager, which could be very productive for the Trail Blazers.
Whether or not Appling makes the team will be determined in the next few weeks and months, but it’s important the Trail Blazers and General Manager Neil Olshey are identifying areas of need and trying to be creative in filling voids. That’s exactly what you have to do in the NBA, and you never know when you’ll find that diamond in the rough. Portland has to keep looking, but hopefully, Appling is their guy.